Hans Holbein was the supreme geographer of the sixteenth-century face. The procession of Tudor aristocrats on show at Tate Britain demonstrates how precisely the Augsburg artist mapped the contours of diplomat, courtier, princess or king. His pen, chalk and brush capture fragile countenances, furrowed lines, healthy jowls, forbidding eyes, producing portraits of a brooding intensity.
The luminous paintings are good; but it is the drawings that steal the show, carrying with them their own marvellous gravity and yet executed with a breathtaking lightness of touch. The same formula is used for nearly all the drawings. Sharp but well-defined lines mark head, eyes and nose; a few curt marks delineate other facial features. And then the almost intangible application of smudges of black chalk defines the contours of each individual face. Despite (or maybe because of?) this economy of touch Holbein is able to record a panoply of distinct personalities, giving each sitter an individual stamp. He may use the same tools over and over again but he employs them with a precision that allows him to capture the infinite variety of human appearance.
Of the sitters, there is very little artfulness about their poses. There is no attempt to place them in a higher drama. Lips are sealed; limbs are tucked in; eyes are looking somewhere and nowhere in the distance. There is rarely sense of action or reaction – these are portraits in a very forensic sense of the word. On first witnessing the exhibition, many of the sitters’ emotions appear to be drawn from a shared well of experience. Prince, poet and merchant all appear calm and dignified yet forbidding and haughty. At times it seems as if their vitality has been repressed. And yet with repeated viewing, and I think it is this is what makes Holbein’s art so great, characteristics materialise in each sitter, making themselves known in the most subtle ways.
Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen’s Collection
Tiny deviations in how Holbein records the face produce these extraordinarily fertile results. The humble eyebrow is a rich example. Thomas More’s eyebrows are hunched over his eyes, a pair of eyes that are deeply set yet never withdrawn; they have a clear, determined focus. The eyebrows slope downwards towards a central, invisible point around the bridge of the nose. A couple of creases also feature, possibly extra strands of eyebrow, similarly emphasising this same spot. The concentration on this area, allied to More’s strong, pointed nose, gilds the sitter with a clear sense of single-minded resolution. The casual viewer may not observe this precise calibration of features but it is such artistic dexterity that helps Holbein to convey the impression of a man driven by determination and a sense of righteous direction – a fact any viewer will witness.
Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Thomas More, 1526-7, Queen’s Collection
Detail from Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen’s Collection.
Now compare this to how other eyebrows are depicted in Holbein’s art, and one will see how the manipulation of such a mundane feature, interacting with the other features of the face, played such a valuable role in relaying a sense of character. Unlike Thomas More’s close-set eyebrows, Sir Richard Southwell’s eyebrows arch upwards; they indicate mild surprise at the words of a non-existent interlocutor. See also how this visual pattern of the arch is repeated elsewhere in the face. In the pursed lips arching upwards, the rising cut of his fringe, the curved peak of his hat; all trace the same ascent and descent that help define Southwell’s character.
But there’s more to the matter than this. Southwell’s look has a severity to it as well. In actual fact his quizzical aspect is somewhat rhetorical, as if he has little time for the imagined other that questions his authority or knowledge.
Hans Holbein, Sir Richard Southwell, 1536, Queen’s Collection. Left and right hand views
How does Holbein achieve this effect? Look at the left-hand side of Southwell’s face. The size and the arch of the eyebrow are rather exaggerated, thus emphasising the quizzical look. The line of the lips is neutral. Taken all together, the face is more neutral, perhaps more innocent. Then take a look at the right-hand side. Here, the mien is much more different. The eyebrow is still rising but is sharp and more pointed. The lip curls downwards in deep disapproval. The expression on the right is much different, much more combative from that on the left. Holbein, like his other great Renaissance contemporaries (Bellini, or Leonardo for example) conveys the complexity of human character not by depicting a single emotion, but by a much more emotionally complex palette, suggestive not of one static emotion but a more fluid, dynamic character.
One could continue elsewhere; the polished eyebrows of the urbane John Colet or the quivering features of Bishop John Fishers, brow undulating in controlled panic. And the eyebrows are just an example. One could trace similar expressive richness in haircuts, chins, ears or eyes. Holbein’s portraits use the most subtle means to tell us about the sitters. And it is the fact that we do not immediately notice this is happening that makes them such valuable works of art. The viewer sees a portrait, a likeness, and not the fiction, the creation; not the way in which the artwork has been manipulated and a particular character evoked. Holbein smuggles in all the psychological traits he wishes to, without ever having to sacrifice physical likeness. Holbein is art’s silent assassin.
The sole religious painting in the exhibition is informative. A rather mediocre rendition of Noli Me Tangere, it clarifies the fact that Holbein was not a painter in the broad, romanticised sense of the word. He was not an instinctive painter. While there is an obvious abundance of natural skill, one gets from the exhibition a stronger sense that it had been an awful lot of training and practice that had established and perfected his talent. (And for this reason it would have been interesting to witness the exhibition on Holbein’s earlier work in Basel). This exhibition seems to indicate that a sudden switch to a different genre of painting would not have been something he would have appreciated; it may also have been that following the predetermined scenario of a religious narrative stymied his creative expression.
And yet he did nurture his talent in so many other areas. He was a portraitist, draughtsman, designer and a diplomatic businessman too – developing contacts with goldsmiths and merchants as well as courtiers and kings. The exhibition does an excellent job of highlighting Holbein’s fluid position within the flourishing English artistic environment (an environment certainly flourishing more than I appreciated), and how he was very much both its commander (in his ability to secure the most important commissions) and its servant (in that his work was always directed to the concerns of his patrons.) A whole range of related work is on show – cartoons, designs for swords, salt-clocks.
But it is the portrait drawings that remain in the head and the heart – deep, meaningful artistic communication via the elegant economy of his chalk, pen and ink.